Rigged: While Heaven Wept Guitarists Tom Phillips and Scott Loose

While Heaven Wept probably made the celestial heavens cry at the thought of all the gear the band has to transport. The 7-piece metal ensemble has built their sound upon layers of massive tone. Even their explanations of the equipment used on their last album is heavier and more intricate than any of our usual rigged columns. It may not be physically possible for the band to be anything but incredibly dense.

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The band’s gutiarists Tom Phillips and Scott Loose broke down, in detail, the entirety of the gear used on their new record Suspended at Aphelion, which a November 18th release in North America via Metalville, and an October 24th on Nuclear Blast in Europe. You can preorder the album at this location.

While we could easily go through the massive quantities of gear that has come and gone over the past quarter century of While Heaven Wept, we thought it would be best to focus upon what we used for the recording of “Suspended At Aphelion” specifically, as in the end, this is the most relevant as of the time of this writing. Despite the fact that the guitars are more “part of the orchestra” on this particular album (as opposed to being the primary or dominant instrument), we did spend a few days carefully selecting items from our arsenal that best suited the album and were thorough developing our tones. Here’s a breakdown of the guitars, effects, and amps that were used for “SAA” – as well as a little history behind a few items:

GUITARS

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“All photos by Craig Hunter Ross” 

Scott: I’d been playing a Fender Strat for a long time, and that was the main electric that I kept in standard tuning. The Strat is appropriate for certain things – it’s a “Fat Strat” which has a humbucker at the bridge and two single coils – pretty versatile actually…but, I wanted to have a standard-tuned guitar that had the same warmth and heaviness as the SG (usually WHW tunes two whole steps down to “C”, and we’ve used Gibson SG’s since the beginning of the band), so it was up the air for a while between a Les Paul and several Paul Reed Smith models. I narrowed it down based on tone, versatility (so that it would work for WHW and Brave), and playability. In the end, I decided upon the Les Paul Traditional Pro II with the 60’s neck…as this one feels great to me and had the tones I was looking for. I chose the white finish partly because it looks badass, but also because it reminded me of my first electric guitar – a white Kramer that I got for Christmas when I was 9 years old.

Tom: Since “Suspended At Aphelion” was the first album we’ve recorded that was entirely in standard A440 tuning, I didn’t have many options left in my personal collection for this purpose, as I’d long sold off all of my Gibson SG and LP customs, the Fender Jeff Beck Strats, etc; all of my guitars are one-of-a-kind, designed by myself and Roy Bullis of Onyx Forge Custom Guitars…and most of these were built specifically for the WHW catalog up to “Vast Oceans Lachrymose”, meaning they were “almost” baritones with a 28” scale…specifically for our “C” tuning – but not ideal for “SAA”. Fortunately, at one point, I had Roy build a 100% Cocobolo “Phat” Tele for me (inspired by George Harrison’s Rosewood Tele circa “Let It Be”), and quite frankly, the results were mind-blowing; of the 50+ guitars I’ve owned in my lifetime, this one simply has the greatest tone, feel, and mojo of them all. Here’s a little more background on this one-of-a-kind beauty:

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BODY: Handmade at Onyx Forge – Thinline chambered double bookmatched Cocobolo T – Comfort belly and arm contours; natural under gloss nitrocellulose lacquer; custom O. Forge bookmatched Cocobolo pickguard under satin nitro; Dunlop Straploks; recessed Electrosocket jack; polished 18-8 stainless steel vintage slotted screws; high quality Gotoh Tele style bridge with humbucker cutout. Chambering was a must. Cocobolo weighs in at a hefty 68 lbs/cubic foot. A finished standard non chambered T style body with no contours is roughly 1/5 of a cubic foot. This body finished out at 6 lbs. 7 ounces. Efforts to shave weight included deeper pockets and milling the body to about 1.6″ thick.

NECK: Handmade at Onyx Forge – 13 degree tilt 3/side O. Forge headstock; Cocobolo fretboard on Cocobolo; Cocobolo truss rod cover under satin nitro, Paua Abalone Onyx Forge logo, fret and side markers; 12″ radius fretboard; 25.5″ scale; custom thin profile with rolled edges; Grover locking 18:1 tuning machines; 22 medium jumbo stainless steel frets; zinc alloy threaded inserts for strength and outstanding sustain; double action truss rod; 1 11/16″ nut width; custom laminated Graphtech & brass alloy nut.

ELECTRONICS: Loaded with a WCR “American Steele” pickup set, both split-able to single coil mode via push / pull volume and tone knobs. The switch is a 4-way with the 4th position set up for series output.

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I also used another Tele that Roy had built for himself – a surf green vintage-style model, that I use primarily for giving guitar lessons (which I do when I’m not working with WHW) – specifically for the Strat-y, Gilmouresque solo at the end of “Heartburst” (Part 4 of “SAA”), as the tone is closer to what I was striving towards, plus the action is a bit higher at the moment, requiring a bit more effort to “dig in” on those epic bends – especially with the .012-013 gauge strings I use (D’Addario XL’s in case anyone is wondering). Here’s a bit more info on that one:

BODY: Hand made at Onyx Forge – Custom T made of Alder, with a very light unfinished body weight of 3lbs 7 oz; Surf Green under gloss nitrocellulose lacquer; custom belly and arm contours; Pearloid pickguard; modern adjustable Gotoh chrome bridge; all screws polished 18-8 stainless steel; recessed vintage string ferrules; Dunlop Straploks; recessed Electrosocket jack.

NECK: Hand made at Onyx Forge – Quilted Maple fretboard with Paua Abalone markers (black mother of pearl at 12th fret) on a Birdseye Maple neck; “Honey” fretboard on a dark Amber neck under gloss nitro; 14″ radius fretboard; 25.5″ scale; “C” profile with rolled edges; Onyx Forge Vintage 6 / side tilt 13 degree headstock; stainless steel medium jumbo frets; black side dots; 18:1 ratio Grover locking tuning machines; zinc alloy threaded inserts for strength and outstanding sustain; black Mother of Pearl Onyx Forge logo on headstock face; double action truss rod; 1 11/16″ nut width; custom laminated bone & brass alloy nut; Goncalo Alves truss rod cover under satin nitro.

ELECTRONICS:
4-way custom switching, including both pickups in series; Lollar vintage T pickups; master volume and tone; all interior wiring channels and cavities are coated with grounded conducting paint to eliminate unwanted RF interference. Vintage style cloth wire is used for an unbroken wire core through 3 or more lugs.

I was actually working on the specs for another 100% Cocobolo guitar with Roy just prior to the commencement of studio pre-production for “SAA”, using the remainder of the wood left from the other Tele, however he suddenly passed away sadly…and I’m not sure how long it will be before I can fulfill our final collaboration…I need to find the right luthier for this. Needless to say, Roy’s artisan-quality work has been featured on that last three WHW albums and the 2010 DVD “Triumph:Tragedy:Trancendence” – and I dedicate my performances on “SAA” to his memory. R.I.P. brother!

AMPS

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In the early days, we often did multiple passes using the same amps to create a wall of sound…almost all of our albums through 2009’s “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” relied heavily upon a first generation Mesa Triple Rectifier that Tom had purchased new in the early 90’s, but “VOL” also marked a very conscious decision to create “composite tones” courtesy of a signal split via a Voodoo Lab Amp Selector, and “SAA” is no exception:

Scott: For “Suspended At Aphelion”, my tracks were split between a Blackstar HT Stage 100, a Diezel VH-4, and Radial DI for a clean direct signal; the Diezel covered the heavier distorted parts, whereas the Blackstar was used for a light overdrive. The ratio between these is ever-changing throughout the album, with more clean guitar blended in during the more harmonically complex passages.

Tom: My rig this time consisted of the same Diezel VH-4 I used for “Fear Of Infinity”, combined with a slightly overdriven original Peavey 5150, and a Tone King Imperial for the clean parts instead of the Radial DI. The blend varied as aforementioned whenever we felt it was necessary to bring out more articulation or more chunk. We actually also sent the signal through a 4th path, through a Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, but I don’t think we used those tracks for anything on “SAA”

As an aside, the Diezel VH-4 truly is integral to the WHW sound now, like the Mesa once was…it really is the last stop on the bus…far more saturated than anything else out there, yet every note of even the most complex chords comes through…and equally important is the fact that the clean channel doesn’t suffer in favor of the high gain options. We’ve been through everything you can possibly dream of from Engls to Bogners, Soldanos to even more recent Mesas…as well as an array of handwired and/or vintage Marshalls, Fenders, etc…the bottom line is: Diezel is crucial to the WHW sound, and what we want to hear: dark, complex, thick, yet organic and clear…plus they are literally built like Panzer tanks!

Usually we use custom deep purple and sabbath black Splawn cabinets that were handmade for WHW, but for this recording we used a Marshall cab with Celestion Vintage 30’s and a Mesa cab…with both the standard Shure SM57 slightly off axis and a Royer ribbon mic.

EFFECTS

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Scott and Tom take very different approaches to effects in most circumstances, but both kept it rather pure for the recording of “Suspended At Aphelion”:

Scott: I prefer to keep my tone as natural as possible, deriving most of my distortion from the amp, so in a live setting, I typically only use a MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay for some ambience during clean parts or to fatten up leads. For this recording, Tom brought in a Rockbox Boiling Point that we used very subtly in conjunction with the Blackstar, adding just a nuance of grit, but a whole lot of magic!

Tom: Yeah, I kept it pretty simple as well in the studio – though I am a complete and utter effect junkie, and proud of it! I definitely used the Rockbox as well on the 5150 as it really does add “something” – the kind of thing that you can’t quite put your finger on, and in this case, despite being dialed back quite a bit, it just elevated everything I sent through it. For the lead guitar parts of the album, I more or less stuck to the Diezel/5150 combo, however, I also sent my signal through a MI Audio Crunch Box (version 1 – truly a “Marshall in box”…though I love the latest generation even better!) and then an Analogman modified EHX Memory Man, as there is nothing quite as lush or magical in the stompbox world. The mods I had Analog Mike do on that MM were: impedance, input gain, and delay time…ultimately meaning I can hit it harder and have more head room.

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Getting out of the realms of guitars alone, many of the atmospheric passages on the album are NOT keyboards (ok, there’s a lot of keys, but not as many as you might think!), rather an array of shimmer and “deep space” reverbs via the AMAZING Neunaber Stereo WET Reverb, a Strymon Big Sky, and the Eventide H9. We also used and Eventide Space And Beyond of course too! I also broke out a Roland GR-55 Guitar Synthesizer in a few places as well (most notably “Ardor” (Part 3 of “SAA”)…in this case used in combination with the “EkoSpaceGod” patch of the H9.

I suppose I should also mention here that I use Lava Cables exclusively…both Lava’s own designs as well as the Van Del Hul ultra-high end cables! In the same way that it makes no sense to put cheap gas into a Ferrari, what’s the point of having the best gear available if you don’t use the best cables you can find? They’re the only things connecting your instrument to your amp (or effects and amp)! Some people claim they can’t hear the difference, but I can testify here that they do…lower noise, purer tone, greater reliability – everything that I believe to be vital on stage AND in the studio!

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Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.